Photo by Marty Lederhandler/APA YOUNG LATINA WOMAN AND HER THREE SONS stare at the stranger standing on their cracked cement doorstep through the black mesh screen of their security door. Helen Gurley Brown has come home.
“I used to live here,” Brown tells the bewildered family in an almost musical whisper. “I'm not dangerous. I'm somewhat well-known.”
Brown was raised in Los Angeles, here in this small stucco house near the corner of 59th Street and Western Avenue in South-Central Los Angeles. Today, in town for a big Hollywood event, she has agreed to spend the morning touring the city in which she was raised and lived out her single-girl years before jetting to New York to become a best-selling author and magazine legend. Her driving outfit? A short black dress, fishnet stockings, bright-red lipstick, and pink sponge curlers concealed by a black-and-white polka-dot scarf.
“Will you let me in?” she cajoles. “Just for a minute?”
Photo by Slobodan Dimitrov
A quick exchange in Spanish follows, something about how la extranjera isn't going to budge until she gets what she wants. The mother unlocks the door, and Brown heads straight toward a backroom the size of a walk-in closet. It's the bedroom Brown, now 79, shared in the early '40s with her older sister Mary, who was wheelchair-bound by polio. Brown's mother and stepfather, an ice cream vendor, slept in the front. They'd come to Los Angeles from Arkansas seeking a better life.
“Gophers used to tunnel up through the floor,” she says, shades of Holly Golightly in her voice. “You could hear the little bastards scratching away. Scratch, scratch, scratch.” Brown peers into the kitchen, where a tired-looking, middle-aged man sits drinking a Coca-Cola, then she walks out to the back yard. Standing in calf-high weeds on the hard-packed dirt, she surveys the nearby train tracks. It occurs to me that this might be the ground zero of man-trap feminism.
“As a dating girl, I'd be sitting in the car, necking,” she says, “and the railroad would come crashing by. You could practically feel the earth move!”
EARLY ON IN HER EIGHTH BOOK AND FIRST MEMOIR, I'm Wild Again: Snippets From My Life and a Few Brazen Thoughts (St. Martin's Press) — on Page 9, in fact — Brown describes this humble two-room home as a launching pad of sorts. Here, just out of high school, young Helen Gurley decided to forgo higher education and become the family breadwinner. By day, she worked as a DJ's assistant at KHJ radio; by night, she studied shorthand and typing at Woodbury Business College. Next came 17 lateral moves through the secretarial job market, a renter's tour of Los Angeles, and sex with a lot of men who never popped the question.
Then, at age 37, Brown's life was transformed by her marriage to David Brown, a struggling, already twice-divorced movie producer who would ultimately make his name with The Sting and Jaws. (His most recent success was Chocolat.)
Brown's Los Angeles years were the basis of Sex and the Single Girl, an urban adventure of desperation and gradual self-improvement that became a best-seller, and led to her stewardship as the editor and public face of Cosmopolitan magazine in 1963.
“I've lived all over Los Angeles, and I'm crazy about it,” says Brown, who has a way of making even innocuous topics seem ripe with sexual urgency. “You can love two cities! I don't think you have to feel like you're being unfaithful! I've never gotten Los Angeles out of my blood. After all, 1936 to 1963! All those experiences! All those jobs! All those love affairs!”
Note how Brown puts employment before romance. She says that's always how she prioritized the two. “Although I got credit for starting the sexual revolution in magazines,” Brown says, “I was never pushing wanton sex. I like to work more than I like to play.” Brown, of course, transformed Cosmopolitan from a dying general-interest journal into the most successful women's magazine of its time by speaking to an ignored demographic — the sexually active, maritally ambitious female work force — and giving it a name of its own: the Cosmo Girl.
What was Brown's exclamation-point-filled message to her gals? “'Do the best you can! Find something you can do! Have a man in your life!' but also 'Your work is important! Don't get your identity just from being a mother or a wife or a girlfriend!' That was the credo for Cosmo magazine.”
In between, though, there was (and still is) a lot of hot-copy mumbo jumbo in Cosmo about snaring a man and determining self-worth through an endless stream of multiple-choice quizzes. On the covers, she put models and celebrities airbrushed to a mannequin finish. No wonder feminists at the time resented her. One radical group, led by Kate Millett, even staged a sit-in in Cosmo's reception area back in 1969, insisting that Brown print a few of their tracts to offset the beauty tips and first-person bad-boyfriend accounts. The way the story goes, Brown refused without a second thought.
“Other magazine editors capitulated to this group. But Helen said, in effect, 'Eff you. I'm not going to print anything unless it's good writing. Go home!'” says husband David Brown. “She's from Arkansas. She's a hillbilly. She knows anxiety. She knows neuroses. But she doesn't know simple primal fear. She's a girl who can walk through Central Park at night. She doesn't like criticism any more than anybody, but pressure doesn't upset her.”
Still, in a famous 1970 Esquire profile, then-journalist Nora Ephron depicted Brown as less than a tough customer. Throughout the piece, whenever Brown is vilified on a talk show, she sobs and sobs afterward. Wrote Ephron, “She cries all the time because people don't understand her . . . They don't understand what she is trying to do. They don't understand that she knows something they don't know. She knows about the secretaries, the nurses, the telephone-company clerks who live out there somewhere, miles from psychiatrists, plastic surgeons and birth-control clinics.”
And, for better or worse, much of what you see on the newsstand today reflects Brown's canny sense of the women who sought guidance from her magazine. Hers was a formula destined to be copied by Glamour, Self, Mademoiselle et cetera. And an issue of Cosmo from 10 years ago doesn't look all that different from the one at the checkout counter today (“The Hottest Thing You Can Do With a Man When You Only Have 10 Minutes”). It was Brown, after all, who pioneered this practice of enticing readers with racy blurbs such as “Can You REALLY Fake an Orgasm?” and “How To Increase the Size of Your Bust.”
Beyond the cover lines, however, Brown's own life showed women that you can come from nothing, just like her, and find your true calling, even at age 43. “We were such a pitiful little trio, my sister, my mother and me,” Brown says. “I just feel, from that little house on 59th Street, I did pretty good. And I feel anybody else can do the same thing. I've come a long way, baby!”
Ephron thinks Brown's success is inextricably tied to her upbringing. “Her Dickensian image of her childhood has sustained her in some really deep way,” she said by phone recently. “There she is, in one of the greatest apartments in New York” — four stories on Central Park West — “worth enough money that she never has to take public transportation ever again, and Liz Smith always talks about the fact that you practically have to bang her over the head to get her into a taxi rather than take a bus.”
TODAY, SHE IS BEING CHAUFFEURED AROUND LOS Angeles in a borrowed Jeep Cherokee, but she isn't having much luck locating her old single-girl pads. Gone is the raspberry-colored apartment building at Bonnie Brae and Third streets, where she kept the telephone in the refrigerator on Friday and Saturday nights (so she wouldn't be compelled to answer it and reveal to her beaux that she was home alone). Nothing looks familiar to her on Elm Street near Wilshire Boulevard, where Brown shared a two-bedroom place with a pair of girlfriends and occasionally camped out in the living room. And who knows what happened to the furnished flat with the Murphy bed and no kitchen on South Curson Avenue, between Sixth Street and Wilshire? “I think I gave you a bum steer,” Brown apologizes, deciding that this particular love nest may actually have been on an adjacent block. Or maybe she has purposely erased the memory. In a key section of I'm Wild Again, Brown shares her depressing reason for moving to this part of the WilshireLa Brea district: It was a failed and, ultimately, seamy experiment in being a kept girl — with a keeper who was married, an anti-Semite and an incompetent lover, and who never forked over the big bucks anyway. “I thought I'd get it all over with, get a lot of money together, and I'd never have to worry again. But it didn't work out,” Brown says, shrugging her shoulders. “He got what he came for, which was my little body. But I didn't get the money, and I didn't get him.” For the next couple of miles, Brown looks out the car window as she talks, watching Wilshire Boulevard whiz by, maybe wondering if there is anything left of the Los Angeles of her youth. Suddenly, she spots two landmarks that elicit a sustained squeal of delight. “Saks Fifth Avenue! I. Magnin!” she says, girlishly clapping her hands over the department stores where she made a regular habit of trying on fabulous clothes she thought she could never afford. “My playpens!”
Experiments with being kept? Designer-clothes obsessions? Keeping your telephone in the refrigerator? Half the time, Brown comes off like a '40s version of a Sex and the City character. One could even theorize that the series has a direct link to Brown's iconic existence. What does she think of the show? For a few minutes, Brown is silent. Then, she says, “They're Cosmo girls — their work is just as important as love.” The HBO series, she continues, is “beautifully done.” Except for one thing: She isn't sure the bawdy dialogue has the ring of authenticity. “They're so explicit about penis sizes! I just don't know that when women get together they're that detailed about what they did the evening before!”
Sometimes, in conversation, Brown uses a throwback word (“happening” is her favorite euphemism for sex, which conjures visions less of boot-knocking than of strobe lights, body paint and freeform dancing). But her social observations and freely offered relationship advice sound at least on par with the distilled pronouncements you read in Cosmo and other women's magazines today. Still, in 1997, the Hearst Corp., publisher of Cosmopolitan, asked Brown to step aside so it could replace her with a new, younger editor. For the most part, she's been a good sport publicly about her forced retirement, which must have really stung. The only disappointment she admits to now was being unable to persuade Antonio Banderas to be the pinup boy (à la Burt Reynolds' much-talked-about 1972 nude Cosmo centerfold) of a special goodbye-to-Helen issue in February 1997. In his place, she got Patrick Muldoon, the guy who played evil hunk Richard Hart on Melrose Place. “He isn't even naked — he's wearing a shirt,” Brown says ruefully. “He was supposed to become a big star, but he never did. So I feel that in my last issue of Cosmo, I failed in terms of male pulchritude. But it's not that I didn't try.”
Brown relinquished her title, but she didn't go away. Five days a week, she still goes to her office at Hearst Corp. headquarters and, as the editor in chief of Cosmo's 43 international editions, scours magazines written entirely in languages she doesn't understand — Hungarian, say, or Swedish — and sticks yellow Post-its to pages, explaining how they've strayed off-formula. Does she miss the way things used to be? “I'm too old to be editing a magazine for a 25-year-old woman,” Brown says. “It would be totally ridiculous. I don't miss the daily work. It's really hard work to turn out a magazine every 30 days. What I miss is the power and the glory. I miss having a product that influences people.”
Not to mention being a lot more popular at parties. Last night, Brown and her husband went to a bash thrown by ICM agent Ed Limato, and she left feeling sort of invisible. “A Hollywood party is like none other in the world. But nobody's there to have a good time. Everyone's there to do the room and get around. I saw my friend Jackie Collins, who's a novelist we published a lot in Cosmo. And I thought, 'Oh! There's a friendly face!' But she had better things to do. She said, 'Hello, Helen,' and that was the end of that.”
AFTER A FRUITLESS ATTEMPT TO FIND AN EFFICIENCY unit she once rented on Dorothy Street in Brentwood, Brown, seemingly in no rush to get back to her suite at the Four Seasons Hotel, supplies directions to a two-story Spanish-style house perched on a hilltop overlooking the ocean in Pacific Palisades. It was the first and last Los Angeles home she and David Brown lived in before moving to Manhattan. After knocking on the door and determining that no one is inside, Brown begins peeping in all the windows. “Oh, this is very nicely fixed up!” she says, then walks around to the back and scampers down an extremely steep terrace trail in her black high heels. (She exercises for 45 minutes every single day, so this isn't a problem.)
So far, Brown has been insisting she isn't affected by revisiting her L.A. past. (“It's fun,” she offers, sweetly. “But kind of weird.”) Still, as we drive out of the Palisades and back toward the hotel, a sadness creeps over her. What's the matter, HGB?
As it turns out, she isn't feeling nostalgic at all. She's worrying, as usual, about work. Apparently, her publisher recently asked her to start thinking about a follow-up to I'm Wild Again, which goes far beyond the tell-all tidbits to include everything from a breast-cancer scare, to a divulgence of her preference in cut-rate skin moisturizer (Crisco, just $4 a can!), to the boob job she got at 73.
“I think I kind of blew it — I used up too much memoir,” Brown confesses. “I'm distressed because I don't have another idea for a book . . . Maybe I've run out of material.”